Unions help address the unique needs of nonprofit workers

Unions help address the unique needs of nonprofit workers
© Nonprofit Professional Employees Union

While working at a mission-based organization can be extremely rewarding, it can carry its own unique set of challenges.

Burnout is common in nonprofits, as wages are generally lower than in the public sector or in for-profit companies, and workers tend to feel emotionally invested in the nonprofit they work for, which can take a mental toll.

As policymakers pursue austerity at all levels of government, nonprofits are needed more than ever, filling a void left by government cutbacks. For nonprofits to fulfill their mission, they need to maintain staff that are fulfilled, valued and empowered at work. 

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At the Economic Policy Institute (EPI), the staff is one of more than a dozen nonprofits represented by the Nonprofit Professional Employees Union (NPEU), a labor union that works to ensure that nonprofits workers have the resources and working conditions they need to become better, more effective organizations. 

Having a labor union at work helps EPI to attract and retain staff and reduce employee turnover. Together, the union and management have decided on solid package of wages and benefits — including good vacation time, parental leave, retirement contributions, professional development and tuition reimbursement — which help employees feel valued at every stage in their career.

Management also benefits from having a unionized staff. The union provides a mechanism by which staff can have an open dialogue with their managers, who care a lot about the issues they work on but may have less experience and training in managing staff.

Our collective bargaining agreement sets out guidelines on our pay structure, the review process, disciplinary action and other sensitive topics, so that important decisions are not made arbitrarily.

Nonprofit managers often face a tension between their need to contain costs and their staff’s completely reasonable desire to secure decent wages and benefits. In a challenging funding environment, a union contract provides a clear, agreed upon framework to address concerns on both sides. 

Having a union also allows for greater problem-solving capacity and creates a collaborative culture. EPI’s staff is passionate about our workplace and interested in continually improving it.

Management encourages staff members to be engaged with their union in order to think of innovative projects that strengthen the organization, including most recently, concrete procedures for improving diversity.

NPEU strongly supports the missions of their nonprofits and wants their organizations to thrive. By coming together, we are able to ensure we have the necessary resources for our organizations to be successful. We’ve learned that it benefits both the staff and the management of an organization to have a labor union that works for everyone.

Kayla Blado is the vice president of communications at NPEU and the media relations specialist at EPI. John Schmitt is the vice president of the Economic Policy Institute and one of the founding members of NPEU. Visit npeu.org for more information on how to start a union at your nonprofit organization.